Religion as a Support Factor for Women of Color Pursuing Science Degrees: Implications for Science Teacher Educators

Feb. 01, 2013

Source: Journal of Science Teacher Education, Vol. 24, Iss. 1, (February, 2013), p. 37–65.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study examines the factors women of color utilized as supports as part of their persistence in science majors.
The article draws from a larger study of sixteen African-American, Hispanic, and African women who were navigating various undergraduate science majors at multiple colleges in the Northeast and Southeast United States. The research question for this study was:
How did women of color majoring in undergraduate science programs use religion as a positive support factor?

As a part of a larger study, sixteen women of color, who were undergraduates currently or previously majoring in a science field, were interviewed.
All participants in this program were underrepresented students majoring in one of the STEM fields.
Participants were recruited through their involvement in a summer science research program at State University, which provided summer internships for 50 students from underrepresented groups.


Given the goal of increasing participation of students from diverse backgrounds into science fields, it is important to recognize how race, gender, and ethnicity intersect religious beliefs and how these influence the way students look at the world.
In this study, family was a key factor for participants’ academic pursuits, but the focus on the religious dimension that families provided was highlighted as a source of strength and support during the participants’ collegiate experiences.

The findingsillustrated that the participants viewed religion as a contributor to general support, stress relief, encouragement during difficult times, and intervention.
These factors contributed to positive outcomes both within and outside of the academic realm.

One way that these findings have been conceptualized in minority populations is that some students are better able to acquire social capital through the community and social networks gained through religious involvement.
Since the participants often explicitly linked their ethnic identities with their religious beliefs, it is likely that these worked to reinforce each other and contribute to their persistence.

The participants spoke at length of the importance of religion as a support system that they could call on during times of adversity.
Given that these women were all aware of their underrepresentation in science fields, it is likely that these students utilized this support at a high level.
Since the participants discussed how they used this support while studying for and taking tests and also during stressful times, there is evidence that they utilized a religion-based support system as a significant persistence factor in their academic pursuits.

Regardless of the origin of the religious beliefs, it was clear that the women viewed the belief in God, and the support they attained from that belief, as essential in their daily lives.
The majority of women in this study did not have family members with careers in science, lacked strong academic preparation, viewed themselves as outsiders to science, and, in most cases, lacked scientific role models who could guide them.
Given these circumstances, it is possible that, for some of the students, religion became a substitute for the type of support attributes that are often found in ‘‘typical’’ successful science students.

The interconnectivity is evidenced by the way that the participants spoke of religion and family as interchangeable elements within their support systems.
Despite the participants’ experiences living away at college and experiencing diverse religious beliefs, all the women practiced the same religious beliefs that they were brought up with during their childhoods.

In addition, these women described active involvement in religion through church attendance and religion-based activities both in their communities and while at their universities.
Thus, the connection with religion was sustained during their time away from home.

Implications for Science Teacher Educators

The findings from this study lead to several implications for science instruction and science teacher education.
Religion was an important factor in their academic pursuits.
Thus, it is important for secondary science teachers as well as college science instructors to develop a stronger regard and to gain a better understanding about religion’s influences on student motivation, academic achievements, and interest in science careers.

Toward that end, science teacher educators and science instructors should capitalize on these sources of knowledge and examine ways to promote student interest and achievement by utilizing these factors.

The author concludes that the findings illustrate that one potential mechanism for broadening science participation may be through connections with students’ families, their cultural backgrounds, and even their religious views.

Updated: Apr. 07, 2014